Oh, to be a former Squirrel Nut Zipper! Alright, maybe it’s not near as lucrative or as high profile (at least in the indie world) as being a former Broken Social Scenester, but quite a few members of the Chapel Hill retro swing band have continued on with other projects. If you’re not familiar with the Zippers, named after a Southern candy confection, you’re probably at least familiar with the Tom Maxwell penned tune, “Hell,” and its hip-hop like spelling of `damnation’ in the lyrics. The incredibly catchy song acted as their one `hit,’ though the band had a large cult following and about a half dozen albums. That particular song can still be heard often as it is regularly used for television shows and commercials. Andrew Bird was considered an auxiliary player for the Zippers and has since gone on to indie acclaim. Katharine Whalen was considered to be the band’s Billie Holiday soundalike, but with Dirty Little Secret, her second solo album, she’s found a sound that suits her even more.
Whalen was one of the founding members of the Zippers along with husband Jim Mathus. But the band broke up and the couple has since divorced. Don’t expect to find Whalen performing Holiday-style and crying in her sidecar or martini. Instead, Whalen’s new album is a celebration, and one from an entirely different era. Opener, “The Funnest Game,” could easily be the theme song for the new version of Casino Royale rather than the Chris Cornell sung “You Know My Name.” “You Who” is a head turner, not only in name, but aurally as well. The hip-hop like horns and sweet coos of the title make it an easy highlight. “Follow” is a tender ballad, acting as a nice bridge between uptempo tracks.
“Angel” defies its own name, sounding much more like a down and dirty “Come Together”-like slinky blues number. “Want You Back” is the closest thing to the style of her former band, though, ironically, more along the lines of the Maxwell sung tracks rather than her own. “In the Night” masks an old time country ballad in the guise of a ’70s soft-rock classic, sprinkled with big band. “Three Blind Mice” is yet another strange hybrid, combining that old calypso style with electronic dance beats and slinky sixties guitars and horns, and pulling it off without a hitch.
It’s a good thing that Whalen changed up the playbook, as it seems that Madeleine Peyroux has cornered the market on the smoky Billie Holiday impression. Whalen proves herself more than just an imitator who can play the banjo on Dirty Little Secret. I guess that secret was that she had a life after the Zippers, and it’s one we can all enjoy.
Various Artists- Lounge-a-palooza
Peggy Lee- Sugar `n’ Spice
Nellie McKay- Get Away From Me